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Confirmation battle skills

Mar 15,2019
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Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Next week, the National Assembly will hold a series of confirmation hearings on seven presidential choices for cabinet ministers. The most contentious candidate is Kim Yeon-chul, head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, who has been nominated to head the Ministry of Unification in charge of North Korean affairs. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) is planning an offensive to either make the candidate stand down or make his nominator, President Moon Jae-in, withdraw the nomination.

Kim has made himself an enemy of the LKP by decrying the administrations of presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye as forces “lacking historical legitimacy.” The LKP brought up Kim’s past comments to challenge his eligibility to be part of the Moon administration. In fact, Kim had mocked Moon for putting on a “poor show in a soldier’s suit” when he — as head of an opposition party — wore a military uniform and visited a Marine base in 2015 to calm security concerns about the opposition after the sinking of the Cheonan warship. Kim also called the former chairwoman of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), Choo Mi-ae, a “zombie.” But no matter how harsh the LKP plans to be on the candidate, Moon likely won’t change his mind.

The LKP should know better than to think Moon would listen to others. While handing over an appointment certificate to Rep. Hong Jong-haak as head of the Ministry of SMEs and Startups two years ago, Moon expressed confidence in the new minister, whom the legislature refused to confirm. Moon told Hong that ministers who faced opposition had done better than he expected. He made the same remarks when he appointed the ruling Democratic Party’s two-term lawmaker Yoo Eun-hye as deputy prime minister and minister of education, even though she was rejected by the legislature. “Those who had a tough hearing process mostly work better,” he told her.

It won’t be any different this time. So long as the opposition fails to dig up serious criminal histories on the seven candidates, they will all get to work. The more the LKP opposes them, the stronger Moon will stand by his choices. Even his former peer Yoo In-tae — now secretary general of the National Assembly — said the president was not someone who easily listens to others.

Here’s a piece of advice to opposition parties: prepare well if you are really determined. The candidates rehearse for their hearings day and night. They seek help from government offices and do their preparations in earnest. Former Prime Minister Chung Un-chan said he would rather not get a job to avoid going through the tough preparation process.

The lawmakers taking aim at nominees should be equally prepared. They must thoroughly examine the nominees’ histories and their weak points instead of merely relying on media reports. The public may appear to be uninterested, but, in fact, everyone is watching. The public has no trouble telling whether the questions are lame. In fact, the confirmation hearings could easily backfire on the opposition. Approval ratings for the ruling party usually go up after televised confirmation hearings.

Next, they must not go easy on politicians-turned-ministers. Look at their poor legacy — what has Minister Hong Nam-ki achieved? Instead of supporting merchants hobbled by hikes in the minimum wage, he has angered them by discreetly probing the Korea Federation of Micro Enterprises, which represents them. While he was in office, only one company managed to join the mid-sized enterprise rank, employing more than 300 in 2017, the fewest in six years. The SME community has shriveled instead of growing under his helm. He has earned sneers from businessmen, who say all he did in office was meet demands from the Blue House.

Another politician-turned-minister, Kim Hyun-mee, could also not have done worse. She waged a war to combat runaway housing prices in Gangnam, a posh district in southern Seoul, but only ended up worsening polarization in the real estate market. She away from the fight between the taxi and ride-sharing industries out of fear of losing taxi drivers’ votes. She has never been interviewed by the conservative media. She drew a clear line between liberal and conservative media, and refused communication with the latter.

That’s not all. The steep increases in valuations of apartments and an alarming slump in real estate markets outside the capital have shaken the nation. Yet she leaves office without any wounds on her conscience. Her expected successor, Choi Jeong-ho, a former vice transportation minister, must clean up the mess she left behind. The National Assembly should apply stricter standards with their former peers in weighing their administrative capabilities.

The confirmation hearing has been institutionalized for lawmakers to probe the candidate’s eligibility to take up responsibility on behalf of the people. The opposition must prove it knows what it’s doing in such hearings — so it does not end up helping the president once again.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 14, Page 30